The last problem U.S. Chief of Staff General Richard Myers was prepared for when he toured Iraq’s most important front last week it was one of linguistics – or rather the surfeit of languages that all but paralyzed a whole warfront.
Flying on Thursday, April 15, from Baghdad to the air base at Talil, Myers was greeted by the commander of the Italian forces in Iraq, Brigadier Gian Marco Chiarini. He then headed to Al Hilla, ancient Babylon, where Polish General Mieczyslaw Bieneik, commander of the international division – the primary force battling along the central-southern front – was waiting. Before embarking on the visit, Myers read through a report the US military command in Iraq wrote up on the fighting from April 4 to 15, the first ten days of the uprising staged by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr‘s Mehdi Army militia.
Chiarini and his men were awarded top marks. They had come under constant attack but managed to turn the tables and mount a counter-offensive that drove Shiite fighters from the center of Nassiryah. The retaking of the city by the Italians lifted the threat the al-Sadr militia posed to the two main American air bases in southern Iraq, at Talil and Taji.
But in Al Hilla, Myers had some hard words with Poland’s Bieneik.
“Myers compared the sorry situation along the front the Polish general commanded to the collapse of the biblical Tower of Babel,” one American source told DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
When he read the report, Myers could not avoid noting that Bieneik had 9,500 soldiers from 23 countries under his command. The allies’ communications network in the flashpoint Shiite cities of Najef and Karbala were filled with jabber in no less than 17 languages.
“They were all yapping, but the commander of one national contingent did not have a clue what the commander of any other national contingent was saying,” the report said.
The language barrier was not the only problem facing General Bieneik’s command.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly learns from the report handed to Myers that there was no operational communications link between the U.S. military command in the central-southern front, Joint Task Force Seven, and the Polish general’s headquarters.
But then, even when the Polish general’s orders filtered through to the national contingents, each commander checked back with his respective capital for further instructions. The top brass back home, instead of giving the commanders the all-clear to carry out Bieneik’s orders, issued obstructive directives that rendered their respective units useless and can be summed up as:
Do not open fire unless your own unit is attacked and your soldiers are in mortal danger.
Do not step in when other national contingents are attacked, do nothing to relieve pressure on them.
Do not make aggressive moves towards Sadr’s forces; avoid confrontations with them.
Faced with paper soldiers, the radical Shiites made rapid gains:
They captured all but one police station and public building in Najef and the surrounding Shiite cities.
Command of his forces slipped out of the Polish general’s grasp.
Things are not as rosy as a White House spokesman suggested on Tuesday evening, April 20.
According to our military sources, Myers told Bieneik that far-reaching changes would be necessary on the central-southern front with regard to the size of forces stationed there and the ability of the multifarious national contingents to work together.
The regional command would also need to rethink strategy, said Myers, following Spain’s decision to remove its soldiers from Iraq. Honduras and the Dominican Republic have followed suit and are unlikely to be the last. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, Bulgaria is seen by the military command in Iraq as being next in line to pull its 485 troops under Polish command in Karbala out of Iraq when their mandate comes up for renewal in July.
Regardless of linguistic difficulties, Washington is seriously keen on Polish reinforcements. Despite statements to the contrary by a number of Polish cabinet ministers, Warsaw is likely to accede to Washington’s request and send more troops out.
Even so, Myers and US military commanders and field officers are convinced the coalition army will be undermanned and unable to defend the broad central-southern front.
“All we will have is 2,000 troops to handle situations arising in any major cities in the region,” Myers told Bieneik.
The stopgap solution: the formation of rapid reaction forces of mixed US troops and Polish reinforcements, their deployment on call if required to come to the aid of other units.
Helicopters left behind by the US 101st Airborne Division will ferry them at speed from one trouble spot to another.
Myers also informed the Polish general of an important policy change: US forces would be positioned permanently on the outskirts of Najef and Karbala. Until now, the US military command in Iraq had preferred to keep American troops out of harm’s way in the two shrine cities, but has now concluded that without their presence, coalition forces might not hold out much longer.
The US army chief stressed that Washington is conscious of the combat fatigue suffered by the national contingents under Bieneik’s command and will make sure that each unit is rotated every six months.
Finally, Myers made it clear to the Polish general (DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources did not reveal in what language) that he wants to see a more determined effort “to get his orders across to troops in the field”.
Our sources note that the American general offered no solutions to the communications problem encountered by the multinational, multilingual force on the Shiite front south of Baghdad. Indeed, oddly enough, Myers is undeterred by the breakdown in Karbala and very keen on replicating the mixed force experiment in northern Iraq. The US command has decided to set up a second multinational division for Mosul, starting out with 3,600 South Korean troops and acquiring more Asian contingents. It is hoped that India, for instance, will contribute a force.